Sheki was one of the first cities on our way through Azerbaijan and quickly we learned that hitchhiking there on its well paved roads worked very well. Locals were curious to see travellers and they wanted to chat with us, even for a short moment. Soon we had to refuse politely from all the offerings that the drivers wanted to share with us! The same hospitality astounded us at our couchsurfing host Jalal’s home. He and his lovely parents welcomed us to stay in their countryside house in a village near Sheki. Since our arrival the table was full of food. We didn’t have words to thank for all the delicious traditional meals, like dolma, dogva and sweet halva (just to mention a few!), that we ate during our stay. Everything was home-made: the cheese, bread, vegetables and fruits from their garden, milk from their cows…we could also learn how to make sugar!
Jalal’s parents shared their time with us and even though we didn’t have a common language the communication was not a problem at all. Together we mixed all the languages we knew using lots of hand gestures – and in the end there were never-ending conversations! The father proudly showed the memorial Soviet Union album which he got after the end of his military duty in the Soviet Army. It was full of pictures: ” look at those people and dear friendships, all of us of different ethnicity, but all of us from one nation!” While the father chatted with us far into the night, Jalal’s mother continued to finish the household chores. In Azerbaijan, although nowadays many people don’t actively practise the religion, they still have very traditional views of gender roles. Women are serving the men, and oftentimes we could see that they were busy from the early morning till the late evening with the tasks.
The time went fast exploring the streets of the Sheki full of beautiful and authentic brick houses with colourfully painted gates. In fact, the town used to be an important rest stop on the Silk Road and it was amazing to visit in the well preserved historical caravanserai, which is nowadays also operating as a hotel offering “accommodation like in the old days”. Nearby another unique monument The Shaki Khan’s Palace took our attention with its magnificent appearance. The building was decorated with murals, frescoes and most importantly, an exquisite stained glass work which is famous for being made of small wooden parts, without glue or nails. It was like a one huge piece of art displaying pridefully the special craftsmanship and we stood a long time admiring never-ending details.
Way back in the Turkish city of Kars, we got familiar with the special tea culture, and then in Azerbaijan we learned the saying “Çay nədir, say nədir” which means that “when you drink tea, you don’t count the cups”. In Sheki the main square was filled with tea houses, and the plastic chairs and tables were set up around the park. In the evening those places were full of men gathering and drinking tea. We loved the strong black tea served in a traditional samovar, from where it was poured into the pear shaped glasses called an armuda. Sugar cubes were accompanying and as the locals did, we took a bite before sipping the tea to our mouth. Afterwards, our sugar levels were peaking!
While on the hitchhiking roads our diet mainly included only bread and cheese, now we wanted to treat ourselves to a famous Piti meal (classic workers meal) in a restaurant that Jalal recommended. We could say that this delicious lamb soup, cooked in a closed clay pot with chickpeas, chestnuts and served with bread, led us to the heights of gastronomic bliss! Our stomachs were filled fully and the meal gave us lots of energy to hike up on the hill to see the ruins of the old castle Gelersan Gorusan. During our walk through the dense forest we found abandoned busses and we just had to take a break to inspect them a little bit more. Inside they were destroyed, windows broken, but the red colour had stayed amazingly bright over the years. Around them the intensive flora were growing and it is just a matter of time when busses would disappear completely into the forest.
At the end of the day we stopped by one of the oldest Azerbaijanis villages, the idyllic Kiş, which is well known for its ancient Albanian church (converted to a museum). The round-towered church was truly picturesque and we could see that the renovation work was carefully done. Inside there was lots of interesting information about the archaeological project, and the glass covered grave excavations allowed us to peer down to Bronze Age skeletons. The village around was calm with its quiet, narrow cobblestone streets and a few locals that we saw changed friendly smiles with us.
It was our luck to have a chance to meet Jalal’s wonderful family who shared their lives with us for the time we stayed in Sheki. Thanks to them and to our long conversations at the dinner table, we gained a lot of knowledge about life in the Sheki – and in the whole Azerbaijan. After the goodbyes, when we hitchhiked further on our road, we were filled with a huge excitement to explore more of this beautiful country!